More than an award…

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A writer should probably enter a film festival to advance her career, meet people in the business, hopefully add an official selection logo to her resume. But I confess: I entered the Oaxaca International Film Festival because I saw that the trophies for best film and best screenplay were statues by Alejandro Santiago — my favorite living artist ever.

I am not alone in this opinion. According to the director of the Oaxaca International Film Festival, Ramiz Adeeb Azar, the Mexican government asked Alejandro Santiago to sign papers saying it’s okay to put his face on money or stamps after he’s dead. (Diego and Frida are on the five-hundred peso note now.)  

I first read about Alejandro Santiago in Raw Vision – an outsider art magazine that celebrates the likes of Thornton Dial and Sam Doyle. I found it a little strange, as if simply because he’s from a small village in Oaxaca, Santiago is somehow an outsider. I can’t think of anyone more connected to his art, to his culture or to the human condition. Consider the seven-year project that vaulted him to fame. He came back to Mexico from living and painting in France and found his entire village empty of men. That’s the flip side of the immigration story we hear in the United States. Women and children hanging onto the thread of hope that their men will make it safely to the other side and someday return.

There are no less than three documentaries you can watch about the project,  but the art-world narrative goes like this: Alejandro Santiago had a dream, and in that dream he repopulated his village. The way he made it whole again was to acknowledge the absence. Seven years and a million dollars later there were 2,500 statues representing the migrants, plus one – himself. There were exhibits along the Mexico/U.S. border – all 2501 figures facing Mexico, yearning, and later in museums and galleries around the world.

The story wormed into my heart and never left. My own childhood was so nomadic that I’ve never felt the rootedness of Santiago’s “migrantes.” For years I’ve tried to see them. It became almost a pilgrimage. Gary and I have visited Oaxaca six times, combing through its world-class galleries, even renting a car to try to drive to the village where Santiago made the statues. But it turns out maps in Mexico are as abstract as its contemporary art. We found other works by Santiago — fantastic, unforgettable drawings and paintings I’ll never be able to afford – but not the migrantes. What we found instead was an entire culture of artistic expression, an explosion of stories put down in clay, on canvass and spray painted on the walls of Oaxaca in protest. I realize now that Mexico was making me pay my dues – when the student is ready the teacher will come.

Migrantes, by Alejandro Santiago

Thanks to the Oaxaca International Film Festival, I am closer than ever. On the mornings before the film screenings began, we wandered Oaxaca’s museums again and found a group of Santiago’s migrantes finally on public display. I stood as still as the statues, suppressing the urge to touch them.

And then, on the last day of festival, Ramiz and his wife Diana invited us to a special screening at the artist’s home. As if making the trophies wasn’t enough, Alejandro Santiago opened his own home for a kid’s night – spreading out straw palapa mats on the ground and projecting all the winning animated films on a white courtyard wall. Seeing more migrantes there, in the humble outskirts of Oaxaca where Santiago still lives with his wife and children and seamstress mother, is something I’ll never forget. They appear to be walking out of a jungle. They stand in silhouette atop a corner of an adobe wall. I realize how deeply he must still feel their absence to surround himself with the presence he willed into existence. Which is only a fraction of how deeply their absence must be felt in families all across Mexico – sons, uncles, fathers and husbands offered up, prayed over, ached for.

Someday, when I’m more experienced and worldly, I’ll have an elegant speech prepared in the event of winning a major award. I was thrilled to win best screenplay for “Mask of the Innocent” and ecstatic that my first big festival win was for a female-lead thriller set in Mexico. But on Saturday night, on the stage of the beautiful Teatro Juarez, I didn’t say any of that. I was holding a piece of the Mexico I have come to love.

Happy Birthday, Byrne

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A long ago toast
It must be a sign I’m spending too much time writing in what used to be Byrne and Duncan’s bedroom. (And, for a brief time, Byrne’s and mine.) This week I’ve thought of her every day.
On Monday, when I picked the first Meyer lemon from the lemon tree Gary planted a year ago. Tart, brilliant and somehow exotic – the fruit itself reminds me of her. And I smiled in the certainty that she, who planted so many beautiful things around this house, would love the luscious new resident.
On Tuesday, I wanted nothing more than to hear how she would spin a double dose of disappointing news that kicked me in the shins. She would have restored my confidence, somehow. She always did.
On Wednesday, when I took out all my irritation on a bike ride and a silly Zumba class, I laughed at myself – on her behalf.  Ages ago I danced, under her proud eyes, at a Byrne Miller Dance Theatre master class. Now I am one of a group of grown women, all three counts off a frantic beat, trying to liquefy our hips to music Byrne would have disqualified as such.
And then today arrived and my swirling collisions with the spirit of the woman I still miss settled into a reason. She was born on this day in 1909, one hundred and two years ago. She just wanted me to remember.

Frogmore Blues

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Just a quick update from Sweet T. That’s my blues name, you may recall, coined during our road trip down the Mississippi Blues Highway last winter. Turns out we don’t have to drive all the way to Clarksdale to hear gut-bucket blues. Not since Kirk Dempsey came back from the blues clubs of Atlanta to the tomato fields of his childhood in Frogmore, South Carolina. 

Kirk isn’t a white-boy, copy-cat kind of blues musician. He grew up picking tomatoes on his dad’s farm just up the road and puts his own Lowcountry growl on artists from Woody Guthrie, to Johnny Cash, to Tom Waits. A little bit washboard, a little bit honky-tonk – when Kirk’s Side Street Walkers get riled up you realize most every song you really love was inspired by the blues.

Tom Davis – the electric banjo player, not the politician – felt the pull all the way from California. Tim Devine brought his Fender Telecaster from a city no stranger to bluesmen – Kansas City. Alan Webb, the group’s transcendent washtub bass player, says anybody who can dance can feel the rhythm of the blues.

With Kirk it goes back further than most. About halfway through the second set, he puts down his harmonica and breaks into gospel with “John the Revelator”. He does it the way he remembers from the pews of St. Helena Island’s Brick Baptist Church – call and response style – only this time he’s playing the role of the preacher.

Not that the crowd Wednesday nights at the Foolish Frog needs much converting. Last night there were two town judges in attendance, a couple of locally renowned artists, a ponytailed landscape gardener and a few bearded carpenters clapping along with folks visiting gated golf course communities. The blues brings all kinds of people together and puts us in our place, like no other music can. You can’t really argue with a deadpan pronouncement by a 60-year-old bass player who made his own instrument from an old boat oar and the plastic cord of a Weed Wacker.

“I would like to add that we are good for the digestion.” – Alan Webb. 10/19/2011

Yeah. What he said. Maybe that’s why the Smithsonian’s music exhibition “New Harmonies” lined up Kirk and his Side Street Walkers for this Monday’s lunchtime concert at the USC-Beaufort Auditorium. For those blues-lovers too down-on-their luck to drive all the way to Frogmore.

Saying goodbye…

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A memorial service for the artist Suzanne Longo is tomorrow morning at ten, at the Beth Israel Synagogue. We’ll be saying goodbye, but all I keep thinking about is the last time we said hello.

I remember that sunny morning because she made me laugh. Gary and I were on our walk, down by the Waterfront Park playground, when she popped out of nowhere. Actually, she popped up from under the bridge to Lady’s Island – a shortcut she cheerily reversed to show the two of us how you can duck under the line of cars waiting for the swing span to close and practically tiptoe over the edge of the Beaufort River.

Normally an artist in her early sixties popping up from under a bridge might startle me, but this was Suzanne Longo. Ever since I met her in the early 90s, she’s been popping up in unexpected places and ways.

I was a rookie reporter just arrived from the West Coast and she was a mysterious artist transplanted from New Orleans. So exotic that she named her gorgeous sons Moon and Star! The occasion was a kerfuffle over one of her sculptures – a bench that prominently featured the mounds of the female form – right across Carteret St. from a church! I don’t know which one of us thought the story was more ridiculous, or funny. Beaufort takes getting used to.

What will be even harder to get used to, is Beaufort without Suzanne.

Brides or revolutions

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I had to choose between two parties last night – a bachelorette/lingerie shower for a young woman I’m just beginning to know, and a night-under-South Carolina-Live Oaks pondering a revolution with dear and proven friends.

The feminist in me would have opted for the latter – sick as she is of corporate greed, insane politics and willful disregard for social welfare. The womenist in me jumped into a river and swam with a bride-to-be.

That’s not a typo – womenism is purposefully plural.  It’s why I invented the word – to amuse and honor the woman who would adore it most: Byrne Miller. And besides, Womanism is already claimed by fiercely academic women in contemporary African-American theology.

I swam with a bride-to-be because Samantha is getting married and that is what women do. We are meant to be there for each other. We are the rivers that wind through life – tidal and moon-lifted. Sometimes placid and often dangerous. Not always flowing in just one direction.

Alone it is an imaginary solitude. Because even when we think we are the only swimmer in the water, we are not. Other women are all around us. Some, like Samantha’s beautiful and weary mother-in-law, Suzanne, are waiting for the tide to take them home. And still the river flows.

Other women are out in front, swimming against the tide. We cheer them on. Some are on the shores, testing the temperature. We say come on in. And when we’re really lucky, as I am and as Samantha will soon be, we find someone to swim beside. We tie our lives together like a raft and hoist a flag that all can see. Together we become a marker in the river of uncertainty, a Moon to reflect the light of love.

The revolution will have to wait until another night. The tide will turn. Waters will rise. And I will be there swimming in women.

Into Africa

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I have my friend Scott Graber to thank for the fact that I can’t stop thinking about Africa these days. He’s gone and written a novel called “Ten Days in Brazzaville,” about a love affair in and with the Dark Continent. I spent part of my childhood in Africa. (Look for the kids with matching homemade brown slacks – the cute blonde with the purse is my little sister and the boy with the blue sweater is me –holding hands with my South African cousins.)

A sepia-toned South African childhood

When Scott realized we shared a love of writing, and Africa, he invited me to join his writers group. Pat Conroy popped in once in a while, mostly to make sure that our fearless leader, Bernie Schein, wasn’t telling too many egregious lies in front of the only woman in the group: me.

It was in the early days of our critiques that Scott read the first chapter of what would become “Brazzaville.” There were do-nothing agents and publishing recessions in the intervening years, but he has overcome all obstacles and actually finished the thing. Which sounds even better on the page than it did in a room trying to ignore Bernie Schein’s infamous cackle. I say “sounds” because that is how I read Scott Graber – he writes with a voice entirely his own, so true to his storytelling self that his pages put you on a Lowcountry porch sharing a bottle of wine while a marvelous story unfolds.

And this particular story takes me back to the Africa of my childhood. I remember it most vividly in sounds. Coins jingling in the pockets of my indulgent grandfather – always enough for me and Jenny to buy some “sweeties.” The rap of rulers on school desks – giggling girls on one side of the classroom and bragging boys on the other. Waves crashing on beaches netted to keep the sharks away. Drums beating to pace the Zulu dancers I begged to watch perform every weekend in Durban. The thrill of it pounded through my veins, frightening and fascinating. I didn’t know that these real Africans had to show pass books to ride buses back to their settlements while I, an intruder from the United States, hopped from foot to foot and slung imaginary spears into the milky sky of innocence.

Zulu dancers in Durban

It was decades later, when I returned to visit my grandmother after grandpa died, that the sounds of my happy Africa connected with its discordant truth. I’ve struggled with my nostalgia, instituted my own guilt divestiture plan over the years. And when I turned the pages of Scott’s book, I realized I may have left Africa in my childhood but it has never left me.

Meet Scott at his book signing, Saturday Sept. 24th at The Beaufort Bookstore from 2-6

Byrne: on Bachmann

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Byrne and Duncan, on the left. He's definitely wearing the pants...

Facebook reminded me that a year ago I was wondering what “Eat, Pray, Love” would have been like if it starred Byrne Miller. Speaking of praying and love, this week I’ve been wondering what Byrne would make of Michele Bachmann.

It happens often. I get worked up about an issue and long for the days when I could have talked it out over a bottle of Merlot on Byrne Miller’s porch. My feminist warning flag went up when reporters starting asking the only female candidate if she’d be submissive to her husband as president. I was relieved not to have to defend Bachmann when I learned that the whole thing started back in 2006 when she said she only got her degree because her husband told her to. I looked up the interview. Here’s what she said then: “The Lord says, ‘Be submissive, wives. You are to be submissive to your husbands.’” Here’s what she says now: “”What submission means to us, if that’s what your question is…it means respect.”

First, on the definition of submission. “Look it up,” Byrne-the-intellect would have told Bachmann. “The meaning is quite distinct from ‘respect.’”

Byrne would have no problem with championing submission – or domination, role-playing, or dressing up in French maid’s outfits. Whatever consenting adults choose to call sex – Byrne supported it. Celebrated it. Remember – this was the woman who brought Mark Dendy’s half-naked female dancers to the Marine Corps Air Station’s stage even though it almost cost the Byrne Miller Dance Theater its city arts grant.

Bachmann’s back-pedaling on the controversy she herself created is what would have raised the famously arched eyebrows of Byrne Miller. Hypocrisy got under her skin. You don’t pander to one audience – in Bachmann’s case religious conservatives who take the Bible’s gender roles for women literally – then change your tune when talking to a larger audience at the Iowa straw poll.

I suspect that Byrne wouldn’t have expected better from a candidate as empty as Bachmann. Her sharpest rebuke would have been to the journalists. She adored reporters, me included. But they missed the mark on this one. You can sense the squeamishness among the national press corps. They love a sex scandal, just not serious questions about sex. Especially not questions concerning the only female GOP candidate, with a “pray away the gay” husband calling the shots from a household without a dictionary.